Last Tuesday we began looking into the life of Nöel Coward. He was born Nöel Peirce Coward in 1899 in Middlesex, England. His body of work is enormous. He was a playwright, composer, poet, painter, he wrote short stories, he sang, and he acted.
What piqued my interest when I first started watching Coward’s plays and films was the depth of human experience and interaction. There is much within a small space. He would give us a one act play, perhaps 30 minutes long, and manage to punch into it such depth of feeling that one would have expected from a longer piece. For example, in the play and subsequent film,The Astonished Heart, that we discussed in part 1, we follow the characters along a relatively normal scenario. Surely the setting of marriage and cheating on one’s spouse is not new, especially in Film Noir. But just when you are relaxing into this simple story that you have heard before, pow! He lays something devastating upon you, in a quick twist of plot. I am fascinated by this sort of writing. I have dabbled in it myself but not anywhere near what Coward accomplished.
Since poetry is my favourite medium, I was delighted to discover that he also wrote poems. Here is a poem he wrote called “Nothing is Lost”, from his volume entitled Noel Coward Collected Verse :
Deep in our sub-conscious, we are told
Lie all our memories, lie all the notes
Of all the music we have ever heard
And all the phrases those we loved have spoken,
Sorrows and losses time has since consoled,
Family jokes, out-moded anecdotes
Each sentimental souvenir and token
Everything seen, experienced, each word
Addressed to us in infancy, before
Before we could even know or understand
The implications of our wonderland.
There they all are, the legendary lies
The birthday treats, the sights, the sounds, the tears
Forgotten debris of forgotten years
Waiting to be recalled, waiting to rise
Before our world dissolves before our eyes
Waiting for some small, intimate reminder,
A word, a tune, a known familiar scent
An echo from the past when, innocent
We looked upon the present with delight
And doubted not the future would be kinder
And never knew the loneliness of night.
In 1939 Britain joined World War II. For a short time, Coward entertained the troops overseas. He was also engaged in intelligence work for MI5. His tours of entertaining the troops were widely publicized but so was his glamorous lifestyle. He received much criticism for living so well when the troops were over there fighting, but he could not counter the charges by telling anything of his secret work for the government.
In 1942 King George VI wanted to bestow upon him knighthood, but Churchill blocked it. He disapproved of Coward’s lifestyle, although they had known one other and painted with one another. He did not receive knighthood until 1970, 3 years prior to his death.
If the Germans had invaded Britain, Coward would have been arrested and killed as his name was on a list in The Black Book. Other celebrities with that distinction were Virginia Woolf, Paul Robeson, Bertrand Russell, and H.G. Wells.
I read a transcript from an evening honoring Coward, particularly a conversation between Roddy McDowall and Hal Kanter, the host. Roddy McDowall told a story regarding Coward’s reaction to poor reviews. They had been in a play together and afterward the cast and crew were at a party. Noël Coward walked in and said, “I smell failure – we must leave!” They left and he spent the evening reading the reviews aloud and “proceeded to read all the reviews and criticize the syntax and their point of view about the work. But what we did was to burst the balloon and one ended up giggling. He then of course, told us that very seldom had he ever had good reviews.” And later, ““Only the public likes me.” McDowall explained that bad reviews were like fuel for Coward and just prompted him to be even more productive.
In 1943 Coward wrote and recorded Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans. Performed live, the British loved it, and it was said that even Winston Churchill requested three encores the first time that he heard it. But it did not translate well over the wireless, and eventually the BBC banned it.
After the war, Coward explained that it was intended to be “a satire directed against a small minority of excessive humanitarians, who, in my opinion, were taking a rather too tolerant view of our enemies”.